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A View from Iowa

Demographic Trends and Data


In 1990 immigrants made up 2% of Iowa’s total population. That percentage grew to 3% in 2000, and to 5% in 2010. The figures below compare the share of the immigrant population in Iowa compared with other states in the Midwest, and the growth of that population between 1990 and 2010. The foreign-born population in Iowa grew by 222% between 1990 and 2010.


Since FY 2000, Iowa has resettled 6,836 refugees from 36 countries. In terms of country of origin, most refugees resettling in the state over the past decade have come from: the former Yugoslavia (1,933), Sudan (1,060), Burma (870), Vietnam (457), and Somalia (414). On average, Iowa also hosts an additional 21 asylees each year. As of FY 2010, refugees have constituted roughly 4.7% of the state’s total foreign born population. The primary private resettlement agencies operating in Iowa include Catholic Charities (Des Moines, Dubuque) and Lutheran Services in Iowa (Des Moines). However, in addition to these agencies, Iowa is the only state in the nation to have a government department certified as a voluntary resettlement agency by the U.S State Department: the Iowa Bureau of Refugee Services. The agency, currently part of the state Department of Human Services, formed in 1975 under the administration of Governor Robert D. Ray. The Bureau, then called the Governor’s Task Force for Indochinese Resettlement responded to a request by President Ford for state governors to support efforts to resettle refugees from Southeast Asia in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. In particular, the Bureau took responsibility for resettling over one thousand members of the Tai Dam ethnic minority, which had been forced to flee northwestern Vietnam into Laos and, eventually, Thailand following the U.S. withdrawal. In the following years, the Bureau also took responsibility for resettling refugees from Cambodia and other parts of Southeast Asia. Although the agency traditionally has aimed to resettle refugees in communities across the state, including Davenport, Waterloo, and Sioux City, in recent years it has placed 100% of new arrivals in the Des Moines metropolitan area. Continuing its historical commitment to the Southeast Asia region, today the Bureau focuses primarily on resettling the recent influx of refugees from Burma. Iowa is also a growing destination for refugees engaging in secondary migration. The possibility of jobs in agriculture and the meatpacking industry has brought many additional refugee families to the state each year. In 2011, the Director of the Bureau of Refugee Services estimated that as many as 1,000 secondary migrants from Burma were living in Iowa. Indeed, the Tyson meat processing facility in Waterloo reportedly employs at least 150 Burmese refugees.


The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that the proportion of undocumented immigrants, as a share of the total population of Iowa, has increased 200% between 1990 and 2010, though the proportion of undocumented persons remains very small. The source of these data is the U.S. Census Bureau’s March Current Population Surveys.” It is important to emphasize that these numbers are only broad estimates. The actual numbers may be quite different. The figure below compares the estimated percent of the total population that is undocumented in Iowa among the 12 Midwestern states and the United States. An examination of data on all of the immigrants living in metropolitan areas in Iowa demonstrates that the majority (30%) live in Des Moines. The Sioux City and Davenport metropolitan areas saw their share of Foreign-born residents decrease between 2000 and 2010.


In Iowa, and across the region, in 2010 a larger percentage of immigrants (58%) than US-born residents (54%) were currently married. Not surprisingly, the total household size of the foreign-born was also larger—3.4 individuals, compared with 2.5 for the native-born. Household members can be either relatives, or unrelated individuals.

Immigration History

As in many Midwestern states and territories during the early 19th century, the first people of European extraction to settle in Iowa were not immigrants, but native-born migrants from the eastern and southeastern United States. Between 1850 and 1870, the state’s population swelled from 192,214 to 1,194,020. Many of these migrants were attracted by the burgeoning railroad system ambling its way westward through the states of the former Northwestern Territory. Iowa would eventually have five such railroad lines. This growth resulted in both greater demand for laborers to construct the railroads, which eventually increased beyond what the state’s native-born residents could provide, and more enterprising farmers eager to reap the benefits of the new mode of crop transport. In an attempt to meet this growing demand for more workers and farmers, the Iowa state government appointed a Commissioner of Immigration in 1860 to be stationed in New York City. This functionary was charged with greeting new immigrants at the city’s ports, and apprising them of the rich soil, favorable climate and economic opportunities the state had to offer. In 1870, the government also funded the publication of a book intended to entice more foreign-born immigrants to settle in the state, entitled “Iowa: The Home for Immigrants.” The book was a comprehensive 96-page advertisement for the state’s wealth of economic and social opportunities, and was translated into Dutch and Swedish. These efforts resulted in a large influx of German immigrants, as well as smaller groups of Swedish, Danish, Dutch, and British immigrants. Between 1900 and 1925, Iowa experienced a boom in coal mining in the state’s northern counties. This attracted a diverse collection of foreign-born workers, including the addition of Italian immigrants to the state population. Yet by 1925, the region’s coal mines had largely dried up, and by the 1950s all but a few were closed. Like much of the nation, the state enjoyed another economic uptick in the form of a surging manufacturing sector following the Second World War. The latter decades of the 20th century saw the first wave of Hispanic immigrants arrive in Iowa. These immigrants found jobs in agriculture and meatpacking, among other industries. Hispanic immigration continues to stimulate the otherwise declining state population.


In its simplest form ‘immigrant assimilation’ refers to a process whereby, over time, immigrants become indistinguishable from native-born residents. This process is neither one-way, nor linear, and not all changes lead to improved status. It also ignores the myriad ways in which native-born residents are influenced by immigrants. To the general public two of the most visible markers of assimilation are language proficiency and socio-economic status. Clusters of poor, ethnically or racially distinct foreign-born residents with low levels of schooling and English proficiency perpetuate perceptions of difference and foster the impression that contemporary immigrants are not assimilating as quickly as white Europeans who came to the US at the beginning of the 20th century. Unfortunately, such perceptions are rarely accompanied by analyses of barriers to assimilation, or support for programs that might accelerate the integration of new immigrants. Differences in such measures as English language ability, home ownership and income depend upon much more than whether an individual was born outside or inside of the US. There are important differences in the ease of assimilation that depend upon the age and skill level that an immigrant has when he or she enters the country, and the kinds of opportunities that are available after arrival. It is important to keep these factors in mind when comparing the experiences of immigrants in various states or regions of the US.


The general public often perceives immigrants to be concentrated in low-level jobs, but in actuality immigrant workers are fairly well dispersed across the skills spectrum; the most rapid growth in the employment of immigrants since 2000 has been in middle-skilled jobs that require more than a high school diploma, but less than a college degree. However the greatest increase in projected numbers of new jobs are in those that require low-levels of education and training. Between 1990 and 2006 the share of immigrant workers in each of the four employment sectors increased dramatically and outpaced the increase in native-born workers’ jobs in rate of increase, but not in absolute numbers, with the exception of construction. Median earnings for the foreign-born and native-born in Iowa are shown below for 2010, and then median earnings of the foreign-born are further stratified by period of entry. It can be noted that the foreign-born who arrived in the earlier waves before 1990, or between 1990 and 2000, have higher median earnings than those who have arrived more recently.


In 2006 46% of foreign-born workers earned “family-sustaining wages,” compared to 59% of native-born workers. The percentages of foreign-born and native-born living below 100% of the Poverty Level in Iowa are shown below for 2010. One indication of assimilation over time is that the poverty rate for naturalized citizens was considerably lower than that for non-citizens, and even lower than that for native-born citizens. Because immigrants must be legal permanent residents for at least five years before naturalizing, the income difference may indicate that incomes are improving over time. It could also be the result of a “self selection” effect, whereby those individuals who elect to become citizens, and who learn enough English and civics to pass the citizenship test are also those who will achieve some economic success. It is likely that both factors are at work. Immigrants who were born in Asia and Europe had considerably higher mean incomes than those born in Latin America (not shown). Some kinds of demographic and socio-economic data are only available for racial/ethnic groups, rather than for immigrants. In the absence of data on such measures as home or business ownership among immigrant groups it may be of interest to compare these measures for Hispanics or Asians with the important caveat that the comparisons include a majority of native-born residents. Data on business ownership from the 2010 Census shows that the total Asian population (native and foreign-born) in Iowa own businesses in the state equal to their share of the total population; however, consistent with Midwest trends, the Hispanic population own businesses at a lower rate than their proportion of the population. Although the percentages of Iowa businesses owned by US- or foreign-born Asians and Hispanics are small, they account for 2,834 and 2,455 firms respectively. The positive impact of immigrant integration into the business sector in Iowa is additionally indicated by the fact that in 2007 immigrant businesses had combined sales and receipts of $1.2 billion in Iowa, and employed 13,419 workers.


Asians and Hispanics/Latinos have rates of home ownership that are similar to those in other Midwest states. In the 2007 American Community Survey, the percentage of all Hispanics (foreign-born and native-born) who were homeowners was 35%. Of the entire Asian population in Iowa, 55% were homeowners.


Immigrants in Iowa, and throughout the Midwest, had both higher and lower levels of education than native-born residents in 2010. By this we mean that they were both much more likely to have less than a high school diploma, and slightly more likely to have a graduate or professional degree. Educational attainment is a very important dimension of integration, as it is strongly related to other dimensions of integration such as income and English language proficiency. Nationally and in the Midwest, the children of immigrants tend to achieve higher levels of education than their parents, although Caucasian and Asian youth go further in school than do Hispanics (or African Americans, few of whom are foreign-born). In Iowa, graduation rates were lower for Hispanic students (foreign-born and native-born combined) than for their Caucasian and Asian peers. Similarly, the Hispanic dropout rate in Iowa in the 2007-2008 school year (6%) was over two times that of White students (2.5%) and Asian students (2.6%). State testing data has come under scrutiny in recent years because of the connection between measures of student performance and federal funding levels. However, if the data can be believed, state tests in Iowa leave some room for optimism regarding improved student performance. According to the U.S. Department of Education, grade 8 students from all racial and ethnic groups demonstrated improved scores on state assessments of math and reading between 2004-05 and 2009-10, with an all-student increase of 0.5% in math and 0.9% in reading. The scores for Hispanic students went up at higher rates than these state-wide averages. Despite the challenges facing Hispanic students, national data show that second generation immigrants exceed their parents’ education levels. Higher educational attainment among members of the second-generation is not specific to Mexicans; it is consistent across all immigrant groups.


English Proficiency is collected by self-report in the Census and American Community Survey. Respondents can respond that they do not speak English, speak English only, or speak another language in addition to English. This final group is then divided further as they indicate how well they speak English as either “Very well,” “Well,” or “Not well.” The chart below compares English Proficiency in the foreign-born population, showing the percent of the foreign-born who identified themselves as speaking English “Well,” “Very Well,” or as their native/only language. There was a slight increase in the percentage of those speaking English well or better from 2000 to 2010 that is not significant; small levels of change may be due to sampling error; larger differences are likely be due to a combination of English language learning by foreign-born over time and higher English proficiency levels of more recent immigrants. In 2010 70% of immigrants spoke English well, very well or fluently. This was on the low end of the spectrum of states in the Midwest, perhaps because of differences in the makeup of the foreign-born population or recency of arrival. Another factor in English ability may be the availability of programs for limited proficiency adults. Levels of English language learning vary significantly within and between immigrant groups. More important than country of origin is the age at which an individual entered the US, and his or her level of education and literacy in their native language. In Iowa, 7% of the total state population spoke a language other than English at home in 2010, and 3% of the total population spoke English less than very well. . One and a half percent of households were linguistically isolated (meaning that all members of the household age 14 and over were limited English proficient). The percentage of foreign-born residents who are limited English proficient (LEP) has remained relatively high over the years. As would be expected, the children of immigrants in speak English at a much higher average rate than the total population of foreign-born in the state. Similarly, immigrants who have naturalized as U.S. citizens (and who are likely to have been in the country longer) have lower rates of LEP than noncitizens. Linguistic integration, like other measures of integration, varies among different immigrant groups. Among the foreign-born ages 5 and older in Iowa in 2009, those who spoke Spanish at home had the highest percent LEP, compared to speakers of Asian and Pacific, Indo-European, or other languages at home. Though Hispanics in Iowa and across the Midwest are more likely to be LEP than other groups, national data show that, in comparison to predominantly white, European immigrants from the early 20th Century, contemporary Hispanic and Latino immigrants learn English at faster rates within the first five years of arrival in the United States. The same is true for the population of immigrants who arrived in the country between 1980 and 2000.


One of the clearest measures of integration is the rate at which immigrants become naturalized citizens of the United States. Naturalization not only means becoming an American citizen, but generally also requires a modest demonstration of knowledge of American civics, history basic English language skills. In Iowa, 37% of all immigrants were naturalized citizens in 2010. Of immigrants in Iowa who entered the United States before 1980, 80% were citizens in 2009, the similar to the national average (79%). Not surprisingly, immigrants who have been in the country the longest are most likely to naturalize. The figure below compares the percent of naturalized citizens in Iowa and in the other eleven Midwest states, both in 2000 and in 2010. In the 2008 elections, 2.6% of registered voters in Iowa were naturalized citizens or the U.S.-born children of immigrants. This proportion of the voting population is bound to rise, considering that the foreign-born voting-eligible population increased by 38% from 2000-2006, and that 85% of children with immigrant parents in Iowa were U.S. citizens in 2009. As of 2012, however, representation of ethnic minorities among elected officials in Iowa remains disproportionately low relative to their share of the population; while 5% of the total population is Hispanic, no state legislators are ethnically Hispanic, and no state legislators are Asian, though Asians represent 2% of the total population.


Tomas Jiminez explained the value of intermarriage as an indication of integration by saying, “When individuals marry each other without regard to ethno-racial or national origin, it indicates that the social boundaries between groups are highly permeable.” Jiminez also highlighted the interconnection of various integration measures by pointing out that intermarriage rates are determined, in part, by English language acquisition and socioeconomic status, which shape opportunities to interact with those of different ethnic or national origins. Data on inter-marriages between immigrants and native-born residents is not available, but between 2008 and 2010, 10% of all marriages in Iowa were interracial or interethnic. While lower than the national average of 15%, this figure is nearly equal to the Midwest.



The Iowa legislature has passed seven immigration-related laws since 2008, including the expansion of  SCHIP health insurance to cover the children of undocumented immigrants. The governor has prevented some restrictive laws from being implemented.  Examples of recent legislation are outlined below.


2010 – Employment Practices and Public Safety (IA S 2181). Employers are required to keep a work permit on file for all migrant laborers. 2010 – Appropriations (IA H 2522). Employment eligibility: All vendors who receive public money are required to employ only US citizens or authorized workers. Also included are appropriations for various state agencies and the Department of Work Force Development to create one-stop services for immigration and employment issues. 2009 – Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act (IA S 340). The immigration documents of sex offenders must be registered with the state. 2009 – Department of Transportation Administrative Procedures (IA S 356). Immigration status of foreign nationals must be verified when issuing a drivers license.


According to the National Council of La Raza, an Arizona-style law enforcement bill was introduced in Iowa in 2011, but was rejected or refused consideration. 2011 – Public Funding and the Tax Relief Fund (IA H 45). This law was passed by the state legislature, but line-item vetoed by the governor. It would have prohibited adults who are unlawfully present in the US from receiving public benefits. 2009 – Appropriations (IA S 469). This law was passed by the state legislature, but line-item vetoed by the governor. It would have prohibited unauthorized workers or residents from receiving development assistance.

Labor Force Data

In the US as a whole the proportion of immigrants in the labor force almost doubled during that period—from 9 to 16 percent, at a time when the percentage of native-born workers decreased from 91 to 84%. Although the foreign-born workforce makes up a relatively small percentage of the total labor force, it grew at a rate that was seven times faster rate than that for the native-born workforce. Forty-four percent of immigrant workers in Iowa were born in Latin America, and a third are from Asia. Immigrant workers in the state make up a smaller percentage of the labor force than in the US as a whole. The top industries employing immigrants and US-born workers in Iowa in the state are similar, although foreign-born workers are more likely to work in entertainment, recreation, accommodation, and food service, and are not heavily employed in retail trade. Iowa had a lower state-wide unemployment rate in January of 2011 than many of the other Midwest states; immigrants in the construction industry (not shown) were particularly hard-hit. In spite of the recession, demand for immigrant workers continued, and the percentage of foreign-born civilian workers increased by 48% in Iowa and by 40% nationally from 2000-2009. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects an increased need for workers in a variety of high-skilled and low-skilled occupations, several of which have a shortage of US-born workers. Although the foreign-born workforce makes up a relatively small percentage of the total labor force, it is growing at a much faster rate than the native-born workforce. The foreign-born workforce in the Iowa grew while the native-born labor force declined over the period from 1990 to 2010.


Iowa has a small,  but rapidly growing foreign-born population.  Between 1990 and 2010 it was one of four states in the Midwest that had an increase of over 200%.  The increases in the foreign-born population and work force  are key to the future prosperity of Iowa  and the Midwest region. The most dramatic demographic shift in the United States today is the aging of the population – a development that increases the tax burden on young workers who make payroll contributions to cover the costs of Social Security and Medicare. Aging has been accelerated by the out-migration of young native-born workers, a phenomenon that Rogerson and Kim aptly call “the emptying of the Bread Basket of its breadwinners.” A steady influx of immigrant workers is essential to maintaining a young and productive work force.

Who's Involved


  • Chet Culver, Former Governor, Iowa

    Governor Chet Culver has spent his entire adult life teaching, coaching and helping make Iowa a better place to live, work, and raise a family. In 1998, Culver was elected as Iowa’s 29th Secretary of State and the youngest Secretary of State in the nation, and he was re-elected in 2002. In 2006, Chet was elected governor of the state of Iowa. Governor Culver’s signature accomplishments resulted from the creation of the Iowa Office of Energy Independence and the Iowa Power Fund. In addition, Governor Culver has been appointed by President Obama and by the U.S. Senate and currently serves on the board with the Farmer Mac. Most recently he has founded the Chet Culver Group, a renewable energy efficiency and infrastructure consultancy.



  • Paul H. Fitzgerald, Immediate Past NSA President and Story County Iowa Sheriff, National Sheriffs Association

    Paul Fitzgerald was elected Story County Sheriff in November of 1992. Prior to being elected Sheriff, he served as a member of the Waterloo, Iowa Police Department for fifteen years serving in a variety of positions including: patrol officer, detective, field training officer, tactical team member, firearms instructor, patrol supervisor, public relations officer, and public information officer. During his years of service with the Waterloo Police Department he also taught for eleven years in the Police Science Program at Hawkeye Institute of Technology, now known as Hawkeye Community College in Waterloo, Iowa.  He is a member of many boards and committees including the First Responders Network Authority (FirstNet).

  • Joseph LeValley, Senior Vice President, Planning and Advocacy, Mercy Medical Center, Des Moines

    Joe LeValley serves as Senior Vice President for Planning and Advocacy at Mercy Medical Center Des Moines. Joe has been a part of the Mercy system for 28 years and has been in Des Moines since 1999. He is a fellow in the American College of Healthcare Executives. He serves on the boards of the Riverfront YMCA, the Greater Des Moines Partnership, Operation Downtown, Mercy Medical Center Centerville, and Mercy Clinics, Inc. he also serves on the Iowa Business Council Deputy Committee, and the Iowa Hospital Association Council on Representation & Advocacy.



  • Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance
  • Lori Chesser – Immigration Department Chair, David Brown Law Firm
  • Tej Dhawan – Principal, StartUpCity Des Moines
  • Bill Gluba – Mayor, City of Davenport
  • Greater Cedar Valley Alliance & Chamber
  • Greater Des Moines Partnership
  • Terry Lowman
  • Richard L. Torgerson – President, Luther College

State Events

To engage a broad community of Midwesterners in a conversation about immigration the “Task Force on Immigration and U.S. Economic Competitiveness: A View from the Midwest” has gone on the road to learn more about the immigrant communities throughout the region. The forums highlighted how immigrants contribute to local economies and the integration challenges local communities are facing, among other issues. 8 forums were held in the late summer and early fall. Local leaders participated. The diverse canvas of immigrant communities and local issues was put on full display.

A View from Des Moines


Moderated by Governor Chet Culver, Founder, The Chet Culver Group
and former Governor of Iowa
. In collaboration with The Greater Des Moines Partnership, Iowa Immigration Education Coalition, the Chet Culver Group, and ImmigrationWorks, USA.